The world is changing fast, and it can be hard to keep up with all the various technologies being developed at any one time. From agriculture to medicine to energy, advancements are being made every day — and some of them will change the world as we know it.
Learn a little bit about these 10 emerging technologies that could directly affect your life within the next few years.
In Vitro Meat
Whatever your stance on vegetarianism or eating meat, it cannot be disputed that our current system of acquiring meat is unsustainable. Large amounts of resources are poured into feeding, slaughtering, and transporting animals — and it wastes massive amounts of water and energy. The animals we raise also produce large amounts of methane gas, which is a significant contributor to climate change.
In addition to the environmental repercussions, there’s also the ethics of farm animal treatment. Many animals are kept in tight, closed places for the entirety of their lives and never allowed to roam. Say what you will about the ethics of killing animals for food, but the conditions that many animals are raised in should be appalling to anyone.
However, it’s not realistic to imagine a future where humans are not eating meat. Humans are diverse eaters, and we could sure survive without meat, but there is a culture of meat in most parts of the world that cannot be erased. To answer this, there is in vitro meat.
In vitro meat is meat that is grown in a lab. Now before you say “Ewww” and ignore the rest of this section, try to think scientifically. Meat is composed of atoms, and if you can recreate those atoms in the exact fashion — but by a different means — it is still meat. If you were presented with two pieces of beef, one in vitro and one from a cow, and you couldn’t tell them apart by taste or texture or anything else, would it still be gross?
The answer is that lab meat doesn’t have to be a gross blob. We can create meat that is identical to current meat. That’s not gross — that’s a practical replacement. Professor of Molecular Biology at Stanford University Pat Brown, had this to say in an interview with The Guardian:
I have zero interest in making a new food just for vegans. I am making a food for people who are comfortable eating meat and who want to continue eating meat. I want to reduce the human footprint on this planet by 50 percent.
Plus, in vitro meat is never alive, so it never dies. Ethically, it makes much more sense. Environmentally, it requires less resources to grow. Economically, though, the price of in vitro meat is still much too high for mass production. And with a large farming lobby in the US and other countries, there could be a legal barrier as well.
Those high productions costs could be the biggest barrier to consumer in vitro meat products. Hopefully, advancements in the field will continue to drive the price down. Companies like New Harvest and Modern Meadow are working to make in vitro meat a reality. Or, who knows, maybe we’ll be 3D printing our meat?
This technology may be years away from mass production, but when it arrives, it could change everything.
Wheelchairs, while they are the best we have right now, are extremely limited. They’re difficult to get into and out of by one’s self, they place disabled people physically lower than their peers, and they can’t climb stairs.
All of that could change if powered exoskeletons become a reality. As with many emerging technologies, production cost is currently a large issue, but the price of exoskeletons should go down in the future. Right now, the ReWalk is the best alternative to the wheelchair, but there are many others like the Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) and Tek RMD.
The ReWalk, specifically, allows paraplegics to stand and walk around, allowing for more exercise, healthier lifestyle, and the ability to see eye-to-eye with their peers. Larry Jasinki, CEO of ReWalk Robotics had this to say about his company’s tech:
This revolutionary product will have an immediate, life-changing impact on individuals with spinal cord injuries. For the first time, individuals with paraplegia will be able to take home this exoskeleton technology, use it every day and maximize on the physiological and psychological benefits we have observed in clinical trials.
Additionally, powered exoskeletons of a larger, stronger kind have many more uses. Emergency responders can use exoskeletons to increase their strength, thus allowing them to lift large amounts of rubble and save survivors in collapsed buildings or rock slides, or allowing them to lift larger patients by themselves.
The US military is also funding many exoskeleton ventures meant to help soldiers walk further and carry more.
However, power supplies continue to be an issue in exoskeletons. How do you carry something compact enough to fit in the exoskeleton that is also powerful enough to drive the whole thing? Advancements are being made by many groups, including NASA, but the technology is still a few years out. We included exoskeletons in our list of emerging technologies that could change the world a few years ago, and they’re even more relevant today.
Yes, that’s right, computers and devices you control with your brain. A computer controlled by the mind could allow those without arms or legs (or the ability to use their arms or legs) to properly control a prosthetic, exoskeleton, or other device. It’s just one of the many ways humans are trying to improve as a species.
For a prominent example of how this could benefit people, think of Steven Hawking and others who suffer from ALS and gradually lose the ability to move their body. Brain-controlled computers, in combination with other technologies, could change all of that. Even a brain-controlled computer alone without connected prosthetics could allows users to browse the Internet, play games, or watch movies — things many of us take for granted.
As far back as 2004, scientists have successfully hooked up brain-controlled computers to allow users to play pong with their minds. Lots of work has to go into this field before practical real world results can be seen, but it has the potential to change the lives of millions of disabled people. Although, there are some scary facets of this as well, like the ability to have your brain hacked.
Remember the Hyperloop? It is Elon Musk’s lofty goal of creating super fast transportation. It could theoretically take passengers from LA to San Francisco in 35 minutes — a trip that normally takes six hours. This theoretical system has a top speed of 760 mph, and designs have been made for both passenger-only and passenger-and-vehicle versions, with cost estimations for the LA to SF route hitting $6 billion and $7.5 billion dollars respectively.
So it’s clearly an expensive system. But the Hyperloop, and other ideas like it, are part of a trend in the development of high-speed transportation. As the world has globalized, people need to get from one place to another quicker than ever, and plane trips from one end of the world to another can take upwards of 14 hours, and many more if you need connecting flights.
Another popular system that many are hopeful will be implemented in the near future is the Evacuated Tube Transport (ETT), an airless, frictionless system that essentially puts people in a tube and shoots them off to their destination. It can hit speeds of 4,000 mph and get you from New York to LA in 45 minutes (a normally six hour flight), while using significantly less fuel and resources than airline travel.
With the right funding and support, we could see the ETT, developed by company ET3, begin to be implemented in the next few years, but it all depends on how much people are willing to invest in our future transportation infrastructure. Even if this is implemented, it would likely be a while before costs reach low consumer levels.
Whether it’s ETT or Hyperloop or some new technology, you can bet that humanity has something better up its sleeve than regular airline travel.
So many diseases come from defective genes — but what if we could just replace those defective genes? That’s the idea behind genome editing, which has been gaining a lot of steam in recent years. With this technological advance comes a major opportunity to wipe out tons of genetic diseases.
Many biotech companies have been successfully gathering funds for research on this possible treatment, including Bluebird Bio, which had a $116 million IPO recently, and Juno Therapeutics, which has raised $120 million in venture capital.
The ability to edit or replace specific genes relies on modified viruses like the adeno-associated virus (AAV), which can get into a person’s body and replace the faulty genes with good ones. Another method is to remove some cells, treat them with a modified virus, and then reinsert the cells back into a patient’s body. All of these methods could prove to be quite expensive, but as more companies invest in it, the price should go down.
Genome editing — or gene therapy as it’s also called — differs a bit from genetic modification, although more so in purpose than in application. Both alter the genes in an organism’s genome, but genome editing seeks to fix defective genes while genetic modification seeks to change well-functioning genes to improve an organism. This is great for increasing the nutrition or improving the taste of food, but when it comes to humans, the ethics of “improving” them is scary.
As long as we stick to curing diseases rather than “improving” ourselves genetically, this emerging technology is wonderfully exciting.
As we run out of gasoline, alternative energy sources are a place that many companies are beginning to invest. It’s an area of growth, and it’s where our future is. Solar energy is perhaps the most prolific of the alternative energy sources.
Solar panels have been around for a while, but they’re not very efficient. The most efficient solar panels of 2014 reach 44.7% efficiency, but most mainstream solar panels are even lower than that. There’s enormous room for improvement, and it’s really starting to boom. Many experts, such as Professor David Mills who co-founded Ausra Inc., believe that solar energy has the potential to compete with fossil fuels in the near future. In an interview with Scientific American, Professor Mills said:
With the right tax policies, such as a mechanism for pricing the cost of carbon, there is no reason solar thermal power cannot be cost-competitive with fossil fuels in the near future.
Many technologies hold the ability to be a game changer here, including nanoparticles, transparent solar panels, spray-on solar cells, and advanced forecasting computers. As with many of these technologies, prices have been dropping quickly, and it could soon be plausible for the average homeowner to install solar panels on their home and become completely energy independent.
We’re running out of fresh water. I know this sounds weird in a world that is mostly water, but unfortunately all of our oceans are salt water. Desalination has existed for a while, but it’s been expensive and not viable as a reliable source of water. But — you guessed it — that’s changing!
When salt water is converted into fresh water, brine is leftover. That brine is full of salt but also many different kinds of metals, and while it’s generally treated as waste, new methods of extracting the metals from desalination brine could make use of all of that “waste”. If it becomes economically feasible to extract metals from desalination brine rather than mining them elsewhere, the positive gain from that could offset the costs of desalination.
Imagine that, we get freshwater and more metals for our batteries and electronic devices — it’s a win-win.
A Real Tricorder
If you’ve ever seen Star Trek, you know of the tricorder. It’s a medical device that can check all of a patient’s vitals and diagnose various diseases. Qualcomm is currently hosting a competition with a grand prize of $10 million to develop a real life tricorder. To win, the device needs to monitor a patient’s blood pressure, blood oxygen saturation, heart rate, temperature, and breathing, as well as diagnose 12 different diseases on the spot including pertussis, HIV, and shingles.
That’s a pretty ambitious goal, but it could greatly advance the medical field, especially if it became cheap enough to distribute in developing countries that have a lack of funds and doctors. It may have been sci-fi, but it could soon be reality.
The youngest team in the competition, Aezon, is excited to be developing something so revolutionary. Their team leader, Tatiana Rypinski, an undergrad at John Hopkins University, had this to say in an interview about her team:
Because we’re new to the field, we’re not bound by the status quo in health care, and as a result, we’re poised to find very creative solutions. … Our technology could really change the way that consumers view their own health. So if they’re feeling sick, they can immediately know if it’s something that they need to be worried about.
With so many determined teams looking to find a solution, this innovative new device should become a reality soon.
Farming is hard work. It requires a lot of effort with a relatively low and unreliable return, but drones are changing that.
Now, these aren’t the military-style machines you’re probably thinking of. They’re more like flying cameras. They’re becoming relatively cheap, thanks to a drop in the prices of processors, cameras, and GPS units — there’s even open source drone software at places like DIY Drones.
These drones can autopilot themselves — from takeoff to landing — and take extensive pictures of a farm for later analysis. Infrared pictures can point out unhealthy areas of crops that are hard to see from the ground, and they can also show farmers irrigation problems or pest infections. To increase crop yields and use less resources, drones are an integral part of the next generation of farming.
And with so many people on this planet, farming needs to be as efficient as possible.
Large Scale Electricity Storage
Storing large amounts of energy is hard. This has been one of the major challenges for alternative energy sources, which generate energy at varying times. For example, solar panels generate a lot of energy during the day, but none at night, and wind turbines generate energy at extremely random rates. Sometimes there is too much energy from these sources, and at other times too little. But for these sources to replace coal and oil, they need effective storage.
Many ideas are in play here, including regular flow and solid batteries, but the most exciting emerging technology is even newer graphene supercapacitors. These supercapacitors can store large amounts of energy and disperse it quickly, far outpacing our regular electric batteries, and graphene makes an environmentally friendly and relatively cost efficient material for that. Development is ongoing, but the research is promising.
Anything We Missed?
There are lots of incredible technologies out there. Is there something we missed? What would you put on this list?
Let us know in the comments!
Image Credit: Earth Via Shutterstock, Solar panel on a red roof reflecting the sun and the cloudless, DNA background, Meat cultured in laboratory conditions, Part of Desalination Plant in Lanzarote, Professional carbon drone with GPS making a ride, and Capacitor bank from Shutterstock.